In September 1835, when Charles Darwin stepped off The Beagle and on to the Galápagos Islands, he noted the different species of finch that inhabited the islands. Not a single one was found anywhere outside the Galápagos archipelago, which lies in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of Ecuador.
Even more intriguingly, each island boasted a different selection of finches, all similar size and colour but with very different beaks — some with thin, probing bills to grab insects, others with large powerful bills to crack seeds, still others adapted to eat fruit. A similar story was true for the giant tortoises of Galápagos: famous as a single type, there are in fact several distinct species, adapted to different islands. Even local plants display the same pattern.
Evolutionary biologists now recognise that a new species cannot arise without some kind of isolation, usually geographical. And, although the analogy is not precise, I believe the same is true of many important new technologies. The 'Skunk Works' of Lockheed was an elite unit of designers and engineers, deliberately isolated from the rest of the company. It became famous for making brilliant aircraft such as the U-2, the Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter. There are other examples: Mario Capecchi, who won the Nobel prize after developing a technique to replace specific genes in mice, studied at Harvard and then left for the isolated University of Utah to let his ideas evolve in isolation like a Galápagos finch.
The innovative and iconic Spitfire aeroplane was developed by a small, idiosyncratic company called Supermarine. Even when Supermarine was bought out by a larger company, the Spitfire's designer, Reginald Mitchell, jealously guarded his team's independence.
A new study by Shane Greenstein of the Kellogg School of Management finds a similar pattern in the early development of the internet. This was initially a government-funded project, but the funding agency was a classic 'skunk works': DARPA, the blue-sky research arm of the Pentagon. DARPA was isolated from the military mainstream and, says Greenstein, was at pains also to isolate its contractors from too much commercial pressure. DARPA spread cash around universities and research companies, giving them discretion as to what they might achieve.
Any innovator will take note that it is worth keeping a few 'skunks' around. But another lesson is harder: the problem of moving an innovative project from the intellectual Galápagos into the commercial mainstream. The internet managed a remarkable transition, over decades, from a military experiment to a colossal commercial and cultural platform. Neither the government-funded exploration nor the free-market expansion would have been enough without the other. Can we achieve a similar partnership when it comes to genetics or clean technology?
Tim Harford's new book,
Dear Undercover Economist, was published last month in paperback
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